What Should Teams Expect Out Of Their Rookie Classes?

A key goal of OTC’s new Rookie Class Evaluation section is to provide more insight and understanding as to how rookie classes pan out. Fans tend to get disappointed when many of their favorite team’s drafted rookies don’t perform as expected. But they and other observers of the NFL should be aware of what the typical rookie class yields. In this article, I intend to go through some statistics of rookie classes, largely parsed through the lenses of snap counts and vested veteran contracts, to attempt to establish reasonable benchmarks. Through this, some rookie classes that may look bad may in fact be closer to the leaguewide mean or median.

Total rookie class snap counts

As demonstrated in the Rookie Class Evaluation homepage, both the average Snap Index of a rookie class tends to be within a range of 8 to 10. What does this mean? For every team’s regular season, think of it as having 22 units of snaps to be completed, for the 22 players on the field at all times. (Kickers, punters, and long snappers do skew this, but not by much.) Multiply this by four seasons to get a total set of 88 units of snaps that members a rookie class can earn before they become vested veterans. Assuming a typical rookie class’s Snap Index to be around 9, divide 9 by 88 to discover that such a class would only participate in about 10% of the available snaps over those four seasons.

Total rookie class snap counts as rookies

Another source of disappointment I regularly sense from fans is when players in their rookie or first years do not immediately step on the field and contribute. I therefore took a look at the Snap Indices of rookie classes filtered only by snap counts from the players’ first accrued season. (This is usually, but not always, their rookie season.) Both the average and median Snap Indices hovered around 2.3. Divide 2.3 by 22, and you’ll see that rookies and first year players only get about 9% of the team’s snaps. This is not much lower than their typical contribution during their first four seasons, but is lower enough that some patience should be exercised when players new to the NFL, adjusting to the much high level of competition, don’t immediately perform as hoped.

Total vested veteran contracts earned from rookie classes

As described in the header to this respective table in the Rookie Class Evaluation homepage, less than half of drafted rookies go on to earn vested veteran contracts. Since each draft consists of an exact average of eight picks per team (seven regular rounds plus one round of compensatory picks distributed among the ends of regular rounds 3 to 7), this means that a typical draft slate should go on to generate 3 to 4 players (as well as about 1 UDFA) that make it past their fourth accrued season. In blunter terms, this means that more than half of the draft picks that a team makes won’t play more than four years in the NFL–and an even higher percentage won’t complete their rookie contracts with the team that originally acquired them. Keep that in mind when you look through a rookie class and feel tempted to woe about the multiple “busts” that it contained.

Vested veteran contracts earned from rookie classes, by round

Another aspect to keep in proper prospective is how successful players should expect to be based on at what level they were acquired by teams as rookies. Here is how this breakdown goes with vested veteran contracts earned, as of now from 2011-2014:

  • 1st: 65.6%/81.3%*
  • 2nd: 75.4%
  • 3rd: 60.6%
  • 4th: 51.0%
  • 5th: 42.8%
  • 6th: 32.7%
  • 7th: 21.1%
  • UDFA: 11.4%

*20 1st round picks from 2014 are still on their rookie contracts via the exercised fifth year option. The two figures listed here respectively exclude and include those players.

What this suggests is that four out of five 1st rounders should go on to play more than four years in the NFL. The same holds for three quarters of 2nd rounders, three out of five 3rd rounders, and about half of 4th rounders. It then becomes more likely than not that a player acquired in a lower level will not earn a vested contract.

Also keep in mind that if anything, these numbers may be overestimated, as many players signing their first vested veteran contract ever from the 2014 rookie classes may not go on to earn any money on those contracts, as they make not make a roster in 2018. In any matter, when judging how well a team does in each round, or in undrafted free agency, keep these percentages in mind as a benchmark before being too critical.

Vested veteran contracts earned from rookie classes, by position

As a bonus, here’s a similar breakdown by position, as there is often scattered discussion about which positions are more “valuable” in the NFL:

  • Quarterback: 46.77%
  • Running back & fullback: 30.19%
  • Wide receiver: 30.20%
  • Tight end: 37.38%
  • Tackle: 51.52%
  • Guard: 50.00%
  • Center: 46.15%
  • Interior defensive line (all defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends): 40.00%
  • Edge rushers (4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers): 43.80%
  • Traditional linebackers (4-3 outside linebackers and all inside linebackers): 48.98%
  • Safety: 32.85%
  • Cornerback: 36.61%
  • Kicker, punter & long snapper: 46.30%

It makes intuitive sense for more offensive linemen and quarterbacks to earn vested veteran contracts that running backs. It’s less so for traditional linebackers getting there more frequently than wide receivers or defensive backs.

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In a week, we’ll begin learning some key information on the future of teams when they draft 256 new players into the league, plus sign hundreds of undrafted players. Remember that it will take at least four years to properly judge how teams did in those efforts–and within that time, most of those players will not last in the league as long as you might think.

Questions about this article? Reach Nick on Twitter at @nickkorte